Captain Fantastic is easily one of 2016’s most compelling and thought-provoking dramas. Inspiring and complex, it examines nothing less that what it means to be a father, through the eyes of a man who some might say is doing everything right, while others for very good reasons might say he’s doing just the opposite.
Brought to life by a talented cast led by Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises, A History of Violence) the film is full of humor, heart, and heartache. It covers and evokes a remarkable range of emotions, all with grace, charm, and earnestness.
In short, Captain Fantastic lives up to its title, though not in the way the superhero sound of it might imply.
What’s it about?
Somewhere deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, Ben Cash (Mortensen) has created his own version of paradise. Along with his wife Leslie (Trin Miller), he’s raised six children in a hand-crafted, self-sufficient wilderness home, all without the modern conveniences most people consider indispensable.
By day, the family exercises and trains their bodies to help them stay healthy and self-sufficient. They grow, hunt, or make for themselves what they can, and what they can’t they sell handmade goods in order to buy.
At night, they eat, read, and talk together around a fire. The parents’ curriculum for their kids includes literature, government, science, philosophy, and languages. No question goes unanswered, and no answer gets sugar-coated.
Perhaps most importantly, no discussion is considered off-limits. Whether its seven-year-old Nai (Charlie Shotwell) asking why a man and woman would want to have sex, or 12-year-old Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) rebelling against the family celebrating philosopher Noam Chomsky’s birthday while shunning Christmas, Ben does his best to communicate, to foster understanding, and to guide.
However, a tragedy draws the Cash family out of their isolation and into contact with people living “normal” lives. As they journey further away from their paradise, the limits of what Ben’s provided to his family slowly become clear.
Further, others like Ben’s sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn) and father-in-law Jack (Frank Langella) come to question Ben’s judgement. For all his good intentions, they fear he doesn’t protect the children enough, that they aren’t safe with him.
Are they right? Ben doesn’t want to believe it — he believes in what he’s doing, and the love behind it.
But what if they are right, and he’s been wrong all along? Will his belief lead the family to another tragedy?
Writing, directorial vision stand out
Writer/director Matt Ross (28 Hotel Rooms) informs his script for Captain Fantastic with poignant and compelling questions for the audience. What does it mean to be a parent? What is a parent’s role in preparing children for adult life? How much of the world’s harsher realities should a parent shield their children from, and for how long?
Heavy stuff, no doubt, but Ross delivers it all with a light touch. There’s humor at every turn, in particular with how the children respond to things like junk food, video games, and the fact that everyone else in the so-called “real world” looks so fat and sedentary.
But for all those funny and sometimes awkward moments, there’s powerful emotion, as well. This family’s love for one another is fierce, and every member of the ensemble deserves credit for making that love and devotion feel real.
But no one deserves that credit more than Viggo Mortensen.
Mortensen clearly threw himself into the role of Ben with the same commitment he’s shown in so many other memorable roles. As Ben, he projects gentle, quiet strength as well as integrity, intelligence, and warmth.
But he’s also stubborn, and at times slow to perceive what others see clear as day. Mortensen delivers all of this character complexity with signature conviction and charisma. He’s the bedrock upon which the whole film rests, and thanks to the solidity of his work, the film works in every meaningful way.
The cast behind Mortensen shines, as well, thanks in part to Ross’s script giving every character depth and nuance. Hahn, Langella, and Steve Zahn make the most of limited screen time, their characters shaped and grounded by beliefs in line with the social mainstream and thus in direct opposition to everything Ben stands for.
The younger members of the ensemble, meanwhile, all have opportunities to stand out, delivering some of the film’s funniest moments as well as some of its most challenging ones. Watch for scenes involving Ben’s eldest, Bo (George MacKay) struggling to maintain a basic conversation with a cute girl (Erin Moriarty), and Nai schooling boys twice her age on what the Bill of Rights is and what it really means.
All that said, Captain Fantastic is easily one of the year’s ten best so far, and it is certainly worth your time and the price of admission. Especially now, when midsummer bombast and expensive action extravaganzas dominate the box office, it can serve as perfect counter-programming.
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Ann Dowd, Erin Moriarty, Missi Pyle, with Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn. Directed by Matt Ross.
Running Time: 118 minutes
Rated R for language and brief graphic nudity.